Google’s plan for 24/7 carbon-free energy ran into headwinds in 2021



  • Project delays held back growth of carbon-free electricity for data centers; Google says long-term trend is going in the right direction

Google edged further away from an ambitious climate goal last year as supply-chain disruptions and grid connection delays held up clean-energy projects.

By 2030, the Alphabet Inc. unit aims to use carbon-free energy round-the-clock to power its campuses and data centers, which are by far its biggest source of direct greenhouse-gas emissions.

Google said Thursday that it ran on carbon-free energy 66% of the time on an hourly basis last year, down from 67% in 2020 but still higher than the 2019 level of 61%. The share of carbon-free power in most locations declined or was flat as weather-related fluctuations hit solar and wind generation and new projects weren’t brought online in time.

The company already buys enough renewable power to match its energy consumption through measures such as power-purchase agreements. In practice that entails using electricity from fossil fuels when renewable-energy supplies are low, and compensating by procuring surplus electricity when wind and solar power are abundant.

The plan for 24/7 carbon-free power for Google’s operations, which the company set in 2020, is harder: It requires electricity use to be matched constantly to the local supply of carbon-free energy.

WSJ Pro Sustainable Business spoke with Michael Terrell, Google’s senior director for climate, on how the company is working to step up its access to carbon-free power. Mr. Terrell also chairs the board of the Clean Energy Buyers Association, a group of companies and other organizations that are pushing for more renewable energy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSJ Pro: Why did Google have difficulty sourcing more renewable energy last year?

Mr. Terrell: We are facing a lot of the challenges that everyone is facing around the world with supply chains. A bit of that made it more challenging to get projects online, but we are still getting projects built, you’re still seeing renewable energy deployed in record amounts.

The best way to think about it is the way we develop projects. We sign deals typically two to three years ahead of when projects are actually up and running. We look at more of a longer-term trajectory versus a year-over-year cycle. For the fifth year in a row we achieved 100% renewable-energy matching. On our efforts for 24/7 carbon-free energy, we feel very good about the long-term trend.

WSJ Pro: What market had the biggest drop?

Mr. Terrell: Our most challenging region is Asia. When you look at the numbers for those sites they are much lower carbon-free energy percentages. That’s due to a number of factors, but it includes less availability for land, more expensive materials and not as much capability to deploy renewables at scale.

The drops [globally] were relatively minor, on the order of 1% or 2%. One of the things that was the most interesting about the numbers is that the majority of our markets saw drops in the grid’s carbon-free energy. Some of that is due to unique circumstances, with the demand falling in 2020 and ramping back up in 2021. I think it underscores the need to not only focus on our own purchasing, but focus on the need to drive electricity grids to carbon free, and that involves a much more comprehensive approach that involves public policy changes.

WSJ Pro: How can you speed up grid connections?

Mr. Terrell: It’s primarily a policy issue and we released a policy road map.

WSJ Pro: What else should governments do to enable the growth of carbon-free energy?

Mr. Terrell: We need to advance technology, we need to expand and reform markets, and we need to empower consumers. On advancing technology, it’s about supporting the development, commercialization, deployment of a broad range of decarbonization technologies and that’s through policies like R&D, clean-energy standards, removing barriers to deployment of infrastructure like transmission.

On reforming markets, we found that having regionalized wholesale energy markets has been extremely useful in the uptake of renewable energy because you’re able to manage the variability of renewables over a larger area and smooth out those bumps. It also creates a more competitive environment in terms of sourcing clean energy, which actually drives down costs for everybody.

On empowering consumers, at this point every energy purchaser should have a pathway to purchasing clean energy, whether it’s a mom-and-pop shop or a large commercial or industrial operation. For example, we worked with the government in Taiwan to amend electricity laws to allow companies to do direct purchases of renewable energy.

WSJ Pro: You saw your biggest increase in the share of carbon-free electricity in Belgium, thanks to nuclear power. How important is nuclear to Google’s plans?

Mr. Terrell: We are leaving no carbon-free technology off the table. We believe it’s going to take a variety of carbon-free energy sources to truly solve this problem, and that includes nuclear.

WSJ Pro: What are you doing on the energy-storage front?

Mr. Terrell: In Virginia, we worked with our energy supplier to develop a portfolio of resources for us. Instead of just going to our energy supplier and saying, ‘We want 100 megawatts of solar,’ we went to them and said, ‘We want to take our sites in Virginia to 90% carbon-free all the time and can you put together a portfolio of new resources that help meet that goal.’ The company went and found that portfolio of resources, which included both solar, wind, some small hydro and also battery storage.

We are now looking at using batteries to start to displace the diesel generators that we use as backup in data centers.

WSJ Pro: How can you manage weather-related fluctuations in energy generation?

Mr. Terrell: We are using machine learning to help us predict what the wind production will be up to 36 hours ahead of time and also using it to help optimize how that wind generation has been going into the markets. It led to a 20% increase in the value from those wind assets and it’s something we are offering as a product through Google Cloud for companies.

There are ways to manage through the variability of resources. Instead of having very small Balkanized power grids, if you manage them more on regional levels, that helps you manage that variability.

WSJ Pro: What emerging technologies are you thinking about?

Mr. Terrell: On the generation side, we are looking at technologies beyond just wind, solar and storage. We’ve signed a deal with Fervo Energy out of Texas that uses advanced geothermal technology to get more out of existing geothermal fields.

Another thing we are doing on the demand side is shifting our computing to align with the times of the day that the grids are the most carbon free—both shifting our computing in time at individual locations, and shifting across locations to optimize when the grid carbon-free energy is at its peak.

WSJ Pro: What are your priorities now?

Mr. Terrell: We will continue to ink power-purchase deals, try to advance technology and advance policy. If we only solve for Google, we feel we would’ve failed. We need to drive this broader system change. Electricity is the linchpin for global decarbonization. Securing this around-the-clock carbon-free energy supply is something that’s not just important for us, it’s critical for the world.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text


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